A Brief History Of Ballet & Hip-Hop
Updated: Nov 8
The elegance of ballet and the rawness of rap have long been presented as polar opposites. Their origins in Catherine de Medici's aristocratic France and Cindy Campbell's uncut Bronx are seemingly two completely different worlds. That's why, in the early 2000s, we got movies like "Save The Last Dance" or the "Step Up" franchise, which captivated audiences for six whole installments. It's a tale as old as time: innocent suburb ballerina needs to spice up her routine a bit, falls in love with the talented yet troubled B-Boy and they both teach each other things along the way.
As hip-hop has crossed over into the mainstream and been accepted as a form of art and Black culture has paved its way into the once-lily white world of ballet, there have been several moments for crossover. Both rap and dance require hard work, dedication and precision. Both serve as entertainment and a reflection of something otherworldly.
The crossover was recently revived when Baby Keem released his "family ties" video with a unicorn verse from Kendrick Lamar. This isn't the first time ballerinas appeared in a rap video or ballet references used in rap as the dance form continues to capture the hearts and minds of what it means to be painstakingly graceful.
Baby Keem ft. Kendrick Lamar - "family ties"
Baby Keem has a lot of hype around him as next up to take the rap throne. His videos are thought-provoking as they bend senses of space and time. His latest offering, the Dave Free-directed "family ties," features a mosaic of visuals. After a scene where a woman twerks on the rapper, another shot shows Baby Keem sitting in a green field surrounded by Black ballerinas in black tutus. Presenting both dance forms together shows that they are equally worthy of being featured.
The ballerinas then appear with the rapper in a courtyard of statues where they bourrée, échappé and arabasque while he walks in and out of the frame. The graceful movements present stark contrast to the throbbing 808s and assailing bars and serve as the perfectly unexpected transition to Kendrick Lamar's tour de force.
K.Dot also had his own ballet moment on 2013's "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe Remix." Yes, it was super exciting that Jay Z joined him for the revamp of the "good kid, m.A.A.d city" cut, but Kendrick really held his own with bars like "On my toes like a ballerina, who knew I'd be Black Swan?" referencing the popular thriller starring Natalie Portman as a ballerina desperate for her chance in "Swan Lake."
Kanye West - "Runaway" & "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" Album Cover
Kanye West can tell Baby Keem "I did it first," not that we are trying to glorify his Ray J diss track or anything. But Ye did indeed have ballerinas in black tutus back in 2010 for his masterpiece "Runaway" short film. The full visual follows the mastermind in his romance with a phoenix. The scene that's used as the official music video features a warehouse-turned-banquet hall where the dancers flit into the scene in two lines as Kanye invokes the chilling piano that has become so iconic. The movement features thrashing arms and dramatic body rolls that add to the avian persona of the lover and the angst of the storyline.
The fair-complexioned ballerinas dressed in black contrast with the Black party guests in white. As the radio edit of the song blends into an auto-tune bridge, the dancers continue performing in solos, which further celebrates the grace of the art and challenges previous stereotypes of both ballet and hip-hop.
Among the several different cover arts for "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" is a portrait of a similar ballerina wearing a black tutu and holding a martini. Artist George Condo says the inspiration came when his wife showed Kanye a video of Sylvie Guillem, the highest ranking ballerina in the Paris Opera Ballet in the 1980s.
"Somehow Kanye grabbed onto that idea of the ballerina,” Condo told Vulture. “He just said, ‘Hey man, I’d like to have a great ballerina painting.’ I thought of a ballerina toasting. You know, ‘Let’s toast to the scumbags.'"
Nicki Minaj - "Pink Friday" Album Cover
While she's not exactly dressed as a ballerina, Nicki Minaj infused ballet elements into her "Pink Friday" album cover with her fluffy tulle dress and all-pink-everything rollout. The queen of Young Money combined her theatrical background with fierce lyricism for her 2010 debut. Her colorful wigs and multiple personalities created a drama that had the world watching.
Mrs. Petty also utilizes the pointe shoes emoji on social media because she has to keep tha haterz on their toes.
2 Chainz - "Pretty Girls Like Trap Music" Tour
Although she wasn't technically presented as a ballerina, Paige "Cupid" Nelson helped bring a ballet aesthetic to 2 Chainz' 2017 tour for "Pretty Girls Like Trap Music." When Tity Boi broke his leg right before he was supposed to travel, he refused to cancel the tour and instead did the whole thing in a pink wheelchair. But he wasn't restricted to staying in one place thanks to Nelson's help as she served as a dancer and personal assistant on stage, wheeling the TRU titan wherever he needed to go. Several of Nelson's costumes had tutu references. And really, the overall branding of "Pretty Girls Like Trap Music" helped bridge the gap between the perceived darkness of hip-hop with a bubblegum aesthetic possibly reserved for Christmas performances of "The Nutcracker."
Drake Being Drake
Good ole Drake. He referenced ballet in 2010 with his appearance on Jamie Foxx's "Fall For Your Type." He's talking to a lady he's interested in, of course, and the subject of what she does for work comes up. She says she's a dancer. Drake's hopeful with his follow-up question and asks, "Oh you dance? Dance like how, like ballet?" To which she apparently responds in the negative and Drake's realizing that he fell for yet another stripper and is frustrated at how he can't seem to shake (pardon the pun) his bad habits. While this reference enforces the perceived contrast between ballet and hip-hop culture, it is a step toward acknowledging that they can coexist.
Drake also continued attempting this bridge when he opened a pop-up club during 2017 Super Bowl weekend called "The Ballet." There weren't any actual ballerinas at the Houston affair and he didn't actually make an appearance, but even just having the event, Champagne Papi probably felt fancy, huh?
Always on the pulse of pop culture, possibly Drake's most legitimate tie to the ballet world was when he included groundbreaking ballerina Misty Copeland in his "Nice For What" video, a cinematic tour by Karena Evans that celebrated women from various industries.
Which leads us to...
Misty Copeland Climbing The Ballet Ladder
The work Misty Copeland has done for the Black community can not be quantified. As the first Black woman to be named principal dancer at American Ballet Theater, she has paved ground for future dancers to know they can reach the top of the industry. Her journey has not been easy as she detailed in her 2014 book, "Life in Motion" how she had to overcome difficulties like finding the right stage makeup for her complexion and how a fellow Black dancer was asked to grow out his hair by an ignorant executive.
Copeland was good friends with Prince, appearing in his 2018 video for "Crimson and Clover" and also touring with him. Her appearances with the Purple One helped ballet crossover into mainstream culture and be embraced as an artform for more than the elite.
Copeland was not the first Black ballerina in the United States as she upholds the legacy of those before her including Raven Wilkinson and Lauren Anderson and she certainly won't be the last as she's carrying the torch for Kylie Jefferson, Ebony Williams, Aesha Ash and more.